Ukraine mourns 33 victims of mine disaster

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine on Thursday observed a day of mourning for 33 miners killed in an apparent gas blast at a notoriously dangerous coal mine in the eastern rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Rescue workers at the Zasyadko mine recovered the last of the miners' bodies, a day after an explosion ripped through the shaft, local officials said.

All of the bodies had been brought to the surface for identification, while survivors were being treated in hospital for burns and gas poisoning.

The Zasyadko mine is located on the outskirts of Donetsk, not far from the frontline in the nearly year-long conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Throughout the fighting, the mine -- one of Ukraine's biggest -- had remained in operation.

The widow of one of the miners, who refused to give her name, accused management of failing to respect security norms.

"They force them to extract without pause to have results and round numbers," she told AFP, weeping.

International monitors reported sporadic shelling around Donetsk airport as recently as Tuesday, nearly three weeks into a UN-backed ceasefire aimed at ending 11 months of violence that has killed over 6,000 people.

The Ukrainian military said that attacks on its positions had killed one soldier since Wednesday, and that a civilian working for the emergency services was killed by shelling in Avdiyivka, a village west of Donetsk.

Regional prosecutors have launched an investigation into the cause of the mine blast, but conceded that the probe was unlikely to proceed given that the area is in separatist hands.

The rebels' own prosecuting authority said it had launched its own enquiry.

- Day of mourning -

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared Thursday a nationwide day of mourning, ordering the Ukrainian flag flown at half-mast and cancelling entertainment events.

The parliament at midday observed a minute's silence, while in Donetsk, a piece of black fabric was tied to the flagpost by the entrance to the mine's headquarters.

Access to the mine was closed off by the rebels Thursday morning, and psychologists at the scene were trying to comfort two women whose miner husbands were missing underground.

"We say that perhaps their husbands are still alive even though we don't believe it," said Oksana, one of the psychologists.

- Equipment withdrawal -

Both the government forces and rebels claim to be withdrawing heavy weapons, in line with the European-brokered ceasefire agreement.

But international monitors say they need greater access to their weapons inventories in order to verify the pullback.

Poroshenko discussed expanding their mandate with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

The two agreed that "the mandate of the OSCE must be expanded immediately" and the mission's technical capacities boosted, the Ukrainian presidency said.

On Thursday, Kiev announced it was starting to pull back Grad rocket launchers as part of the next stage of the withdrawal spelt out in the deal struck in Minsk.

Western powers are watching closely for signs of another flare-up in violence, and reserved the right to increase sanctions against Russia. The United States has also been considering arming Kiev forces.

At a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin in Kiev on Thursday British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stressed that Europe and the US needed to "stand together" in pressing Russia to ensure "full implementation" of the ceasefire deal.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of backing the insurgency with troops and weapons -- claims Moscow denies, despite several accounts from Russian soldiers returning from the frontline.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Kiev Friday to show "steadfast support for Ukraine in the face of continuing Russian aggression."

The Ukrainian government has assured it is commitment to the ceasefire, but is taking steps to prepare for a possible resumption of violence.

On Thursday, parliament voted to boost the military to 250,000 troops from a current tally of 235,000.

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